Thanks to Judy Minshall for recording our guest speaker at the September 15th Meeting, and thanks to Janice Anderson for doing all the work of transcribing the recording for those of us who missed it.
Creative Nonfiction Essays
Janne Goldbeck as guest speaker
My talk, today, is not really formal. I didn’t script this, so I don’t have a lot of notes that I am going to go through. I was hoping for something more informal. I would like to invite you, as we talk… I’d like for it to be a conversation more than anything. If you have comments you want to make as we go along… maybe you agree with [what I am saying]; maybe you disagree, have things you want to add to what I’m saying, any questions, any tangents you want to fly off on – just go for it. You don’t have to wait until the end of what I have to say in order for us to have this conversation.
* I did think it would be a good idea to break it down into two sections. I am willing to do pretty much what you people would like to have done. So, whatever is most interesting to you, most helpful to you, we can focus on that, as far as I’m able. My plan was to talk a little bit about what is creative non-fiction and what sets it apart from other types of writing, and what I suppose I am doing, when I say to myself, “This is what I’m writing”. And then, maybe, we’ll talk a little bit about some matters of strategy, that is, ways of proceeding.
* I can tell you some of the things I do. You can try them out and see if they suite you, or see if they fit with the kinds of things that you are accustomed to, with the kinds of things you do in your writing practice. Since you are all writers, I am not going to bother with the baby stuff. You know that already and I don’t have to say it to you. If I said those things, you would go, ‘Oh, yeh. Why is she wasting my time?’ So, what this is, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I thought about it when I started writing it- it’s a lot like writing poetry, when you’re writing this sort of non-fiction.
* Maybe if I used a comparison, it would be a little clearer… when you’re writing something that is meant to instruct, or if you’re writing something that is meat to persuade. If you are writing a political editorial, or if you are writing something intended to explain to someone how to go about something, you already, before you start writing, have a conclusion. You already know what you think about the subject. You’re writing a political piece? You know where you stand, so you are writing toward that particular idea and your purpose, obviously, is to talk about it in a way that’s clear, and you hope persuasive.
* When you are writing this kind of non-fiction, I think you don’t know what you’re writing about until you’ve written it. So, in that way, it’s like a poem. You don’t have a clue what it’s really about until you’ve written through it and gotten an idea. It’s an exploration, a consideration, meditation on something, but you don’t come into it with a preconceived idea, ‘This is my thesis statement’. If it has a thesis statement, it’s not creative non-fiction.
* You are welcome to argue with any of this. I don’t have the word from heaven, so you can argue with anything. It seems to me, that as you write these sorts of things, you are exploring your own ideas about why something is significant, or what might be significant about it. It’s very open-ended and you start, I think, not with what you want to say, but you start with what the subject wants to say to you. You start with all those things about your subject that reach out and grab you.
* One of the essays I brought with me is an essay about walking up into the hills, here. Just at that crux, just when fall is turning into winter, and there were other things going on, which I’m not going to talk about because once you tell somebody, ‘This means X’, then you spoil it. In starting to write that essay, I didn’t start out with knowing what I was going to say about that experience. I started out thinking it was very significant for me. There was something about it that was very important for where I was at that time, that stage of my life, the age I was; everything. It was a necessity for me to take that walk. I was exploring as I was thinking about writing this. I was exploring what it was that I might want to say about it or what it was that was significant. I was trying to find out myself what was significant about this. In order to do this, you start with images. You start with everything that comes back to you in terms of what I have seen in that experience. How did it feel, just physically? How did it feel? What was the wind like? What were my physical sensations? What did I see? Why did I take this road instead of another road when I went up the hill?
* So, you start with the concrete, and that’s the heart of this kind of writing. It’s the concrete details. Like poetry, it’s the concrete detail that carries it. When you find yourself sliding off into abstractions, you stop and say, ‘Well, no, I don’t want to go there, at least not for now’. The fewer the abstractions, the better. Because it’s the experience or events, or whatever you’re writing about that’s going to carry the meaning. The meaning is inherent in what it is that you did, you saw, or experienced.
* In the case of this essay, that I am using for an example, it was the atmosphere that day: the clouds, the colors, what I saw as I walked up each road, who wasn’t there (because a lot of times you go up the bench, and particularly back then, [since] this is an older essay, you would see people coming down in in their pickups, or, in those days, not four-wheelers but often dirt bikes, motorcycles.) So, what wasn’t there? What was missing? You locate what’s there and not there.
* Those are the things that will tell you. If those things hit you hard enough to make you say, “I need to write about this. I need to explore it and figure out what it is that’s important”, then those are the things that need to go on the page; those details that hit you so strongly. Have you had an experience like that? I’m sure you have. Practically everybody has something that is so profound and it doesn’t have to be one of those amazing, life-changing experiences. It can be something very small, like taking a walk. But it’s so important to you, it hit you. You carry it home in your head; put it in your journal. It doesn’t leave you. It won’t leave you alone. I’m sure you’ve had those, if not on the page, the somewhere in your journal or somewhere in your memory that you want to write about.
* So, you start out on this exploration. And, I usually just start free-writing and trying to get at all of those details; trying to get them down before I lose them. And, of course, you write them, as you all know from your own writing, as you write them, other things come up to your memory. So, it’s the process of writing that, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember there was this here. I remember what the creek looked like. I remember what happened at that moment’. So, you collect all those and just write them out: no form, no structure, no preconceived ideas. You are simply writing them out, as completely, and as thoroughly, and as meticulously as you can. I say to myself every time I write an abstract, ‘I [must] cross it out, because I want the detail. I want the experience. I want the sensory’. That’s going to be your first line. Interpretation, significance, ideas about- that comes later.
* Question: What about when you are in this process here, and all of a sudden you can’t get them down fast enough and you are losing them? Do you have any tricks that you do that help you capture as much as you possibly can? Answer: Obviously, the only thing that you can do is just keep writing.
* Question: Tape recorders? Answer: There are tape recorders. But then you have to have them right there to set up, and sometimes that’s clunky, and you forget things, anyway. If you can link [ideas] to something, if you get the idea and you’re writing about the way the creek looked, and all of a sudden you flash on the clouds, and there’s something about the clouds you want, you may say, ‘O.K., color. I’m going to relate that. I’m going to give it a hook in my mind, to the colors so that when I write about the color of the creek, I will remember the color of the clouds’. So, those sorts of hooks can do it for you.
* The Middle Ages had this wonderful technique for memory, where they had a place. They visualized a place. And, the things you wanted to remember, you put into a particular place. If your place was a room in your manor house, you would say, ‘O.K. Right over here, in this chest where I keep my clothes, I’m going to store my memories of Aristotle, everything I’ve heard about him because that’s important, and I want to keep it’. When I want to remember something about Aristotle, I mentally go into that room, and it comes back. It’s remarkable. It really works. I guarantee it really works. You have this mental picture, a room; it can be anything. They used cathedrals a lot, as you may well expect, but any sort of space. It doesn’t even need to be an interior space. You can use that too, and say, ‘O.K. I’m going to put this cloud stuff over here, and when I want it, I’ll walk over, and open that cupboard’.
* I would say don’t worry about sentences. If you know what that sentence means already, and you think you will remember when you back and read it, go on to the next one. Don’t worry about writing full sentences. At this stage it’s just not all that useful, I think. [There was a slightly inaudible comment made on the use of key words and their use in this process.] [Audible comment: If someone else doesn’t know what the key word means, you will.] Answer: Yes, it brings it back. So, there is a different kind of quality in this. Everything that your composition teachers taught you, when you’re writing, just throw that out the window. You don’t want that stuff.
*Has anybody read Lewis Thomas? He writes this [type of] exploratory non-fiction. If you want a master at it, he’s the one. He’s a medical doctor and a medical researcher, or was. I think he must be retired by now, if not dead. He wrote a number of essays or collections that were explorations of scientific ideas that he connects and explores. He doesn’t just say, ‘O.K. Here’s the idea. I’m going to tell you about this kind of micro-organism.’ He gives its significance, its meaning, what it might be connected to; goes way out on a limb, sometimes. And, he leaves you at the end with no conclusion. He can leave you with a question. He can leave you with a suggestion, but, when you leave his essays. Your mind is just churning. You think, ‘Wow! I wonder if that could be, if that could be connected to this other thing?’ He gets you going in that way and opens up a subject he walks around in, for a while, and looks at, thinks about, connects, and then makes his suggestion. It amazes you. If you want a pattern for this or a model for this, he’s very good.
* Another person I would highly recommend is Craig Childs. Has anybody read him? He’s not writing essays. Mostly he writes about the Utah desserts, further south, New Mexico, a little bit into Arizona, and even into Mexico. He’s written about the ancient American cultures, particularly the ancestral people. They used to be called the Anasazi. He walked through that whole country, and he writes about his experiences, walking [and] coming upon these ruins, going into museums, looking at these artifacts. He’s a wonderful writer, absolutely wonderful. He has a book called House of Rain that is about his long walk. He decided he was going to trace the path that archaeologists say that those ancestral people took as they left that Four Corners area and went down south; which he did, on foot. He’s also got a book about water in the dessert, which is about his encounters with animals in the wild. That is the series of shorter pieces. He’s got an absolutely mind-boggling essay about ravens that, if you don’t read anything else of his, you should read.
* You probably know the other names. Maxine Kumin. Do you read Maxine Kumin; her essays? Barry Lope writes this kind of fiction; does wonderful things. Who are some of the ones that you love the most? People who write non-fiction? Comment: Truman Capote and In Cold Blood are what I think of as my idea of creative nonfiction. He actually went to the hotel and lived there the whole summer and interviewed everybody in town, and then recreated the intimate details of the murder. That’s what I had in mind for creative non-fiction. There’s all the drama of a novel, but there’s actual perfect research. Answer: Sometimes you need to research something. Sometimes you are writing about your own experience and you don’t need the research. Sometimes when you are writing about something you want to talk about – the birds you are encountering when you take your walk – you may want to look them up and learn a little about them so you don’t say things that are absolutely off-the-wall. So, there can be a level of researching. Comment: But, you’re talking about starting out with a solid thing and then expanding it. He’s thinking about hard facts. Answer: There’s a lot of interpretation in there.
* Terry Tempest Williams? Do you read Terry Tempest Williams? Any others that you particularly read? Peter Matheson? Adventuresome, emotional. Any others that come to your mind? There are all of the classic people like Aldo Leopold; all those people that have been around for a long time. Wendell Barry. A contemporary that I think is very good, here in Pocatello, is Professor Roger Smith. Anybody her know Roger? He teaches English, actually an 18th Century specialist. He writes absolutely wonderful essays. So, if you ever get a chance to hear or read any of his wok, take the opportunity. He writes lovely things.
* Comment: My problem is, when I start to write something, from a given topic, like being given a picture, say, and writing about it. I never know where I’m going to end up. The story takes hold and I go way off from what I planned. ‘Where’d this story come from? I didn’t even know it was in my head.’ Answer: That will happen with this, too. It won’t morph completely on you. If you’re writing about a walk, it won’t suddenly become an essay about a cruise. When I was teaching at a sort of junior-level composition, people would come in with everything they’d learned in freshman composition; all those things you have to teach freshmen so they keep themselves organized. I would give them an essay I had found in a literature book, and it was there as a good example, for the students to look at and say, ‘O.K. This is a model for me to use when I write about these literary works. We would look at it and we took it all apart.
* One of the things we discovered, when we took it apart, was that there were big gaps in it where it looked like the writer wanted to say something but was constrained by that thesis statement at the beginning. There were hints in the essay that maybe something else was really going on there. When we got to the end of this essay, we discovered that what the writer had to say in his conclusion was something quite different than what he started out with. Now, this was presented as a wonderful essay, to the students to model themselves on, but the lesson in it is that you have to write it first and find out what you have to say, so that you can actually say it. Sometimes, like we were talking about at the beginning, you know what you think about something, and your writing sets out to demonstrate it. A lot of the times, I think we don’t know until we’ve written it once. And what we may think at the beginning is not what we end up with.
* This is why, no matter what your feelings are about the matter, you have to write drafts, because you won’t know what you have to say until you’ve written it at least once. And it may take a couple of times before you really figure out where it’s going. I know that in some of these essays that I have been working on, I had one essay that I was just mono-a-mono with that essay. I wrote it and it didn’t work, and I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t work. There was something the matter with it, and it wouldn’t come together. It was just a mess. So, I sat down with it and wrote it over again, trying some different things. I realized at about the third try that the problem with the essay was that I was writing two essays, really. Once I separated them out, and gave each on the space it needed, it started to work. I took quite a while. Maybe I’m a slow learner, but it took a while to figure out what was really going on- what I was really doing.
* I know that you have all had experiences where you write, and you go back later and you read, and you say, ‘Wow! Did I write that?’ You’ve got to let those things come out, and you will tell yourself, eventually after writing it one time, or two times, or three times, however many you need, where you are going, and then you really get down to work because then you will know what it is you’re shaping. It can be a long process, but you will know when you hit it. You’ll think, ‘Yes!’ There will be a Yes! And you’ll know this is really it.
* With this sort of writing, there are some things that I do, when I’m writing essays like this, that I like to keep in mind. The first thing is that they’re factual. It’s better not to give people information that is wildly inaccurate. If you really don’t know about the habits of flickers, and you write about flickers, you better go read about them. The first thing that will happen is that the first reader of this piece will be an ornithologist, and that person will say, ‘This is absolute bunk!’ And he’ll tell all of his friends and you’ll be on Facebook, or something. You want to do your homework. If you are going to write something going on in the Pocatello hills in November, then you’ll want to draw on your memory, but you may also want to do a little natural history reading so you know the right names for thins. You can call things by their proper names, and you don’t say, ‘Well, there was this tree’, and you name it, and it turns out to be a tree that really only grows in northern Arizona. You want to make sure that you have your facts straight.
* Having said that, you may lie a lot in this kind of fiction, if it is the right kind of lying. There are certain things, in order to make your essay true you may want to play with the absolute fact, a little bit. If you went up on a walk in November, but there are three or four other walks that you have taken, you don’t have to stick to that one walk. You can bring all of the other walks in. And, you can say, ‘On this day, this happened, and this happened, and this happened.’ Is it literally true? But, it’s true to the experience. If you’re writing about your memories, which are notoriously slippery, you may find that you may want to change things. I want to bring my brother into this story, but he wasn’t really there. But, I want to bring him in because that’s what makes what I am writing a little truer. You can play with the literal level. There are certain facts that you’ve got to have. You can only push this so far before people are going to say, ‘This person is lying, lying, lying.’
* But you can move things around, and you don’t have to put everything in because it happened in that event, or because it was all part of the same day, or whatever it is. You leave it out and there is nothing illegal, immoral about that. It’s simply because you are writing something, and you want to have that be true to what it is that you are trying to express. I told you that when I start these sorts of things, that when I write poetry too, I just free-write, free-write, free-write. That can go on for days; just collecting stuff. I go back and read my journals that have to do with experiences like this. Collect information. I sleep on it. I write it and the next day I go back and write some more. It has no shape, no form. I don’t try to impose anything on it. I’m not even thinking at that point what it means… just what was it? What is it?
* Once I have exhausted myself in that way, then I can go back and read what I’ve written. At that point, I start eliminating. I edit down all those notes so that those are the things I start with. When I begin to write, I find myself pieces. My advice is, and this, again, is to test it and see if it works for you- don’t start at the beginning. Whatever you think may be the beginning, don’t start there. Start somewhere else in the middle. You won’t know the beginning until you get to the end, so just leave the beginning out. If it helps you to have a prompt, to get yourself in, you can start something really, really simple and simple-minded; ‘I was walking in the hills one November day’. You know that’s not going to go into the edit, but you can go on from there. Just plunge in, and start in a place where you feel most comfortable getting started.
* I don’t know if you censor yourself when you start writing, but I find that helps me not to censor myself, because it’s so easy to say, ‘If you start at the beginning, it’s so easy to get caught’. Flaubert wrote the beginning of Madame Bovary maybe fifty to one hundred times. He could not get past it. You don’t want to get caught in that kind of syndrome. You start somewhere where you feel comfortable and you start to shape that piece, and then you can go on to another piece. Put them out there; little pieces. I cannot compose on a computer screen. I can write memos. I can write reports, all those kinds of ‘by rote’ things. I cannot compose creatively on the screen. I have to write those on the side. I have to cut it up and have it all out in front of me in pieces. You have to be able to manipulate it and you can on the screen, but you have to see it all at once. And I can only see a piece of it on the screen at a time unless I make the print so small I can’t read it, so it helps me not to do it on the screen. In the process, you think of something and write it on a sign, ‘I’ve got to stick that in here somewhere so I remember when I write it’. Or, I think of something else I want to insert. It works better- maybe it’s just my generation- but it works better for me that way. Maybe you can do that on the screen. More power to you. My rough drafts of things are spider webs. They look like those nineteenth-century letters where they were saving postage. They wrote one way on the page, and then they wrote the other way on the page.
* Comment: When you are doing a rough draft and then you read it and then going back to change, I put a date on it because I know from experience that if you don’t put a date on it you will spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out what you eliminate or what you added. Answer: I usually letter mine, that day. It’s the same idea. You know, ‘this came first’, and you don’t get them confused. You want to save that stuff in case you need it. So, I have all these pieces and that’s when I start to put them into some kind of order. If I’m going to outline, I outline in very general terms. All the time I am doing this, I’m trying to get a specific, concrete, as grounded as possible in my writing. I may be getting ideas. If one of those sudden inspirations hit you, and you say, ‘I know why that’s important’, write it over here, in a separate column, so it doesn’t get in the way. You keep it because you’re going to want to use it.
* Question: When you do that, do you finish, but put down a key word before you go off on a tangent? Answer: If I’m at that stage of, say, trying to write a complete first draft, and I get a tremendous inspiration, I’ll put it somewhere like this. I’m not free writing anymore. The problem with letting your inspirations about significance and meaning come too early, they’ve got to be there. But, if they come in too early, they will close things down for you.
* I’m going to try something. I used to do this with my students all the time. I want you to think for just a few minutes about all the uses you can think of for a brick. Just think about it. I’m not going to ask you for your list. Comment: Recently, we wrote in our writing class on the sights and sounds of Autumn. Each one of us had a list, and it was amazing how very little duplication there was. When you think you’ve thought of all the things you can think of – anybody got to that point yet? Question: Seven enough? Answer: You just want to keep thinking about this because when you get to the point where you think you’ve thought of everything, of how I might use a brick… Comment: Everything I’ve thought about how to use bricks involves doors. O.K. What are some of the things you’ve thought about to use bricks? Comment: Windows, line a garden, build a building, lay a patio, build a bookshelf, build a well, kill somebody, things you can paint on a brick. You can paint it. They become an art object.
* Now, you want to think of more things that you can do with a brick. What sorts of things did you put on the second list? Comment: I drew a blank. Answer: O.K., that happens. What usually happens is, you write, and write, and you write, and you start out with the things that come right away- make a path, build a wall, build a well, break window – things that just come.
* Then you hit a wall, and it’s like, ‘That’s all I can think of. That’s it.’ You’ve got to go on to the other side of the wall because that’s where the good stuff is. That’s where you get the creative uses for the bricks. You have to keep doing what you were doing, and say, ‘Yes, O.K. I’ve got to come up with another use for a brick. And that’s when you really start getting creative. You’ve gotten rid of all the standard, every day, ordinary, hum-drum, boring ways to use bricks, and now you’ve got into the really good stuff. One of my students came up with the idea that if you smash the brick, you have powder that you can use to clean a skillet. It always works, once you make yourself go past the wall.
* Once you sit there, however long it takes, and say, ‘O.K. I’ve got to come up with a way.’ That’s when the really good stuff will happen. Same thing is true when you’re writing. What you’re going to put at first is going to be the ordinary, everyday, first thing off your head, easy stuff. If you stop then, you’re going to have ordinary writing. You’ve got to keep pushing it so you write that out. You get past that first stuff. That’s one of the reasons why you don’t want to tell yourself, ‘This means this’, right away, because that’s going to be, sort of, the top level of what it meas. But, if you keep going, you’re going to go further down, and you’ll get somewhere deeper, and then you’ll get a little deeper. Comment: This is true whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Response: Writing is, and you know this already, that funny combination of letting the unconscious go, so that you can tell yourself the things that you really do know, but you don’t know you know. Meticulous craftsmanship is a highly conscious activity.
* Comment: Earnest Hemmingway had a good idea. He said, “Write drunk, but edit sober.” Response: Write in your dreams. Edit when you wake up. You have to give it some gaps, too. That’s why you want to put things away for a while and come back to them. You’ve got to let that stuff simmer, and then when you come back, there’s more; it’s different. But, then of course, your conscious mind has to be there to say, ‘That’s banal. That’s boring. There’s too many words in that sentence. Have I really gotten to what I wanted to say here?’ And you have to, at that stage of your writing; you have to be absolutely ruthless with yourself. You can’t let yourself get away with anything. When you’re letting your unconscious go, anything goes.
* You write it all down, but when you go back to do your shaping, your editing, you want your conscious mind to be telling you, ‘I need another word here. This sentence doesn’t sound right.’ And, obviously you can’t craft every sentence that meticulously. You need to be able to hear, ‘This sounds clunky, or this is boring. If I didn’t write this, would I read this, or would I be so bored that I would put it away?’ If it bores you to write it, it’s going to bore someone to read it. So, have mercy. Write something that interests you to write. You’ll know. You’re living with this thing you are writing. You just can’t let yourself get away with anything. You can’t say, and it’s hard to do this, ‘Oh, that’s a beautiful piece of purple prose. That’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done.’ Of course that doesn’t really fit. You just take it out and put it over here and save it. Someday, you may be able to use it. You’ve got to be ruthless. You can’t let yourself get away with it. You can’t let yourself be sloppy, but you do have to trust yourself. You know how this has to be shaped. You will find out. You will discover.
* When you get to the end of the essays, that you are writing, or the short stories, or whatever they are, but particularly this type of non-fiction, you will probably discover that you don’t have a thesis statement; that you don’t have a definitive statement about what it is you’re exploring. You will have the place to which you have come that satisfies you now. You will have questions that you want to open up to your readers. You will have a suggestion.
* Comment: That’s the difference between television that pushes things to you, and reading a book which is an interaction between you and the author. Your readers are going to have to do a lot of work here. You’ll have to have had it set up so they can do that work appropriately. No morals at the end, no summings-up, just, ‘This is where I have come to.’ If you look at the ends of some of those particular essays of non-fiction writers you really admire, the ones that you really love to read, you might look to see how they end things, and you’ll see that they don’t wrap it all up for you.
* Good fiction writers don’t either. There’s always something left over. You know about your favorite bath tub reading, whether it’s mysteries or romance, or Westerns or science fiction, that if everything is all tied up at the end, you read that book once. If there’s something left over, then you may come back to it a second time, even a third or fourth time. There’s always surplus meaning in a good piece of creative writing. You get a nice idea of how it means, what it means, how it’s put together, where it’s taking you. But there’s a little bit left over, and it doesn’t quite fit in there nice. It’s got to relate to what’s been going on, but it doesn’t close it down. You don’t want this to ever be closed down. Alright, the best way to do that is after you’ve written it, and you think it’s a good draft. You think this is pretty much what I want it to be. I haven’t done the final edition yet, but I think I’ve got this; [now] go back and scrap the ending.
* Question: Scrap the what? Response: Scrap the ending, or take the ending and turn it into the beginning, and write a new ending. This is one of the reasons you don’t write the beginning at the beginning. So you can take what you wrote at the beginning and you can insert at the end. You put it at the beginning. You write a new ending, because now you know where you’ve been and where you want it to go, so you can write what you wanted to write. One of the things I used to have my students do with their essays… (used to drive them crazy) is that I used to have them bring a printed copy of the essay that they had written, and they thought was pretty good, and then I had them outline it, and cut it physically, cut it up into pieces of that outline. And then I said, ‘O.K. Now you have to rearrange this essay twice, and you can’t use your original order.’ It has to be a different order.
Physically, you have to take these pieces and then you take the tape and tape them together. And then you go back and read them and see what happens. You can do that with anything, but it’s a wonderful exercise. Once you’ve gotten what you think you want, try that, because it’s easy to get locked into a form; easy to say, ‘O.K. This is the only way it can be structured’. And if you make yourself actually, physically take it apart and reassemble it in a different order, some of it just won’t work, and you may find that the first order is the one that you really want. You may discover some really interesting connections and new ways to put it together. If you do that, nothing is fixed until it is actually printed, and even then, when you do the revised edition, you can change it again. So, that’s some of the things that I think are maybe most significant about what this is.
Any questions, comments, arguments?
Comment: Something I’m struggling with. I get the creative part of it. I think you’ve got a lot of good suggestions that can be used in our writing. But I’m having trouble separating between the fiction and the non-fiction because it seems to me that this is leaning towards pushing the edge of the non-fiction side.
Response: It is pushing. I guess one difference is that fiction, most often, not always, but most often has a narrative line. Non-fiction does not. Most of it does not have a narrative line at all.
Comment: But some of the more readable non-fiction does.
Response: It has the structure.
Comment: But, I can see how a book is just a series of essays, arranged in some sort of way.
Response: Non-fiction, yeh. You know that book I was talking about by Craig Childs – the one about the trip? It has a sort of a structure because he did start out at Chaco, and then he started walking. So, he has that structure to it, but it’s not, ‘Well, first day I did this, and the second day I was here, and the third week I did that, and the fourth week…’ He pauses at times to investigate something. ‘I come on this ruin, and in this ruin there’s ashes left from a campfire, and I see three or four little cobs of corn, there. Is it ethical to take those, or is it not ethical? Should I leave it where it is, or may I take one with me?’ So, he may stop and explore that, and that might lead him to remember a time when, which actually happened to him, when he came on a pot, and took, and then took it back later. I know you can do flash-backs in fiction, too. You can shift, but the intent is not to tell a story. The intent is to explore an idea, sometimes even to explore an image. A lot of the essays [in the collection I’m working on], what I’m exploring in that collection is the intersection between memory and one’s own aging. So, I’ve reconstructed. I took a sabbatical early in my academic career here and went down south into New Mexico. I wrote about it and I took a lot of notes and wrote a lot of poetry out of that. I had a sabbatical late in my academic career, in order to write these essays, and I reconstructed my first one, and I went back to the places that I had been to the first time, because I wanted to see how they had changed now I had changed. What difference that made, and what was the intersection between my memory of these events and places and where I was now. That’s what I was exploring. So each one of these essays, I’ve tried to come at from a slightly different take. I’m discovering things about that younger woman that I’ve only found by looking back at her, by being older. So, it’s that kind of exploration. Does that help you? The boundaries are fuzzy. I’ll give you an example of two [authors]: Wendell Barry who, to me, tells a story, but he does explore them very creatively. In the end you get some sort of conclusion, I believe- some take-home message. Barry Lopez, on the other hand, writes creatively, just incredibly creatively, but the parts of work that I know are totally fictitious. So, that’s why I say, you’re right on the edge. If you’re not careful, trying to be a non-fiction writer, you could end up on the side of fiction. That is why I think that is one of the reasons you have to be so meticulous about some of your facts. There are certain kinds of things you can’t play around with. It’s [a] very tricky line. That depends partly upon how much you’re making up.
Question: I understand it. But there again, where is it fiction and where is it fact? You could say, ‘It’s that way I remember things happened, you know, and defend it that way’. But somebody else can say, ‘You know, your dates are all messed up. You have the facts totally juxtaposed, and Judy and I will tell the same story in a different way, with different parts of it’.
Response: You can sit down with a sibling and start remembering something, ‘Do you remember the time when…’ And then [you] discover you have two totally different versions of it. There is a great story about [a person] that came from a wealthy family, and a memory of being almost kidnapped, and ‘sort of’ saved by the nursemaid. The story was that somebody had tried to snatch him out of his carriage and the nursemaid had wheeled it off, run home, and she told this story to his parents. He had memories of that, clear memories. Come to find out late, she had made the whole thing up because she was late (she had been talking to her boyfriend in the park and she was afraid she was going to lose her job). She made up the story. But he had memories. I know I had memories that came from books, but they’re my memories.
Comment: Sometimes I will just read intensively. There’s a lot of great stuff out there I’m excited about reading very intensely. Then, I’ll get up in the morning and it flows out and I worry, ‘Am I subconsciously copying somebody else’s stuff?’ And then I can’t find the place where it might have been. Am I plagiarizing or should I just let it go and see where it goes? I mean, a major publisher isn’t going to sue me or anything like that. I just like it to be my own.
Response: It can’t be entirely your own. All of that comes in gets processed. You just want to avoid words, plot lines, obviously. You know the obvious stuff- somebody else’s brilliant idea that you don’t want to steal. That happens. It can be an issue if you are writing academically, because you have to be so meticulous. You think, ‘Well, I think I read something like that, but I think that was twenty years ago.’ How do you reconstruct that? Anything else you want to ask or add?
* I like to examine words, like love or marriage. I go look it up because I discover that the dictionary sometimes has all kinds of definitions for the same word, and I just take off in a bunch of directions. People cannot believe I can come up with such stuff on a simple word. For them, it is set in stone. When I was reading these, I was noticing those kinds of things that you do (this is what I mean about paying attention to the details because that’s going to surprise you).
There’s a place where I’m coming down the hill. This is part of the crux of the essay, my encounter with a coyote, but I was wearing a scarf tied around, and the end was blowing up over my head. It was like an ear, like a pointed ear. And I noticed I was writing about that and my nose was kind of cold and wet. I didn’t think anything about it until after I had written the essay and realized that that was a set-up, really, for the coyote meeting, where a coyote and I stood in a snowstorm and just looked at each other. It was there, but I didn’t bring it in consciously. Those details that you put in ultimately make a pattern that you may not be conscious of at the time, but then when you go back and look, you say, ‘Oh!’ And you can do that in your editing, too. ‘Oh, I see that this particular image keeps coming back. Maybe I want to do more with that. It seems to be important to me.’
Well, I thank you for your time.